Geeks With Blogs

Dev.Hell Harrowing the tech business like it's 1999
For the last week or so there's been a lot of discussion about the New York Times piece about Amazon's dystopian work culture, which you can read over here if you have been living under a pile of rocks that no wireless signal can penetrate:

I've never worked at Amazon so I don't know how true any of these allegations are, but, based on my own experience working for nine or so different employers through my own career, I believe them. 

It doesn't happen everywhere, but it's very common to to have individual performance metricated. It's very common to be secretly ranked and graded, with all the attendant behaviours that this promotes: back-stabbing and -scratching, cliquishness, cronyism and favouritism. I worked for a manager who once brought a five inch stack of paper into a staff meeting and who told us that they were the resumes he'd received the previous week from people who wanted our jobs. I worked for a manager who boasted that the best way to keep a dev shop efficient was to work his team until they burned out and then just replace them. 

I've experienced this abusive behaviour first hand, in many different workplaces. It's not fair and it's not healthy and I'll likely talk about it in greater detail in another post, but... it is SOP in the tech business. It's not unique to Amazon.

I've talked about all of that before. What I'm interested in right now, though, are the reactions from mainstream news media, to whom I guess this is all fresh and exciting. Here's a juicy piece from the Guardian:

Where to begin? Shall we start with the headline?

I guess the tech business seems edgy and cool if you work in marketing, but if you're, you know, technical, it's still wall-to-wall nerds. Not the cool nerds, who host TV shows about video games and wear designer glasses and pop culture tattoos--I mean old school nerds, who are generally youngish dudes with poor dress sense and poorer social skills. I really haven't seen a lot of change in that regard in my sixteen years in the business. Civilians still roll their eyes if we even attempt to talk shop--unless they need us to fix something for them. Edgy and cool? Not hardly. PS You know that Big Bang Theory is laughing at us, not with us, right? 

While we're on demographics, the Guardian then goes on to decry the lack of diversity in the tech business. The technical side of the business is still mostly male, and that is a huge problem (again, something I'll address in another post), but ethnically? I don't think so.

The Guardian article complains that Google is 61% white. Well, yeah. The US is roughly 72% white, so that's actually a pretty fair representation. I'm guessing that number includes a disproportionate number of Russian and Eastern European immigrants, too. The numbers of Latinos and blacks are a bit lower than the general population, absolutely. I've worked with exactly two black software engineers in my time: one from Botswana and one from the West Indies. But what about the remaining 33% of the tech population? I don't think it's drawing a long bow to suggest that group is mostly from the subcontinent, with a good sized contingent from the Middle and Far East. 

I have worked in small companies where most of the team was white, but never in a large one. At my current workplace I am the only Caucasian on my team of 12--and, while I am also the only native English speaker, I, too, am an immigrant.

The Guardian hedges a little bit about the privilege enjoyed by tech workers, because it  wants its regular readers (I am one of these) to feel sympathy for Amazon's employees but also to maintain its blue collar cred. Let me tell you about privilege: I work in a building that also hosts a lot of law firms and I promise you when a bunch of engineers get in a lift with a clutch of legal eagles there is an obvious difference in class. 

Many tech workers who here on work visas are paid comparatively badly--but that exerts downwards pressure on the wages of local workers, too. You want more money, Mr Fancypants Programmer Citizen? We can send your job to Bangalore any time we like. 

You may recall a recent Tectopus wage-fixing scandal, featuring many of the biggest companies in Silicon Valley--Google, Adobe, Intel, and Apple, as well as Hollywood shops like Pixar--conspired to keep engineers' salaries down. These are the engineers who built the technologies that have so thoroughly changed the texture of reality since the 1990s. Shame there's no union to protect us from such behaviour. 

Working in software is closer to blue collar work than people think. We create tangible products. We are expected to work long hours, and the work is demanding. Working in a tech field requires you to be creative and scientific at once, in a situation where you expected to produce as if you were on an assembly line. It takes a lot of training to be a competent engineer. Because the technologies and tools change underneath you all the time you have to constantly work to stay current--in your own time. It's not an easy industry to survive, much less to love. 

Butbutbut, the Google bus! Whizzing nerds to their high tech nirvana workplace while everyone else has to sit in traffic like a schmuck! They get free food and foosball!

Are you freaking kidding me? Companies operate those buses because they want workers to spend more time at the office. They feed you at work because they want to keep you on the campus. Foosball is an effort to convince you that you enjoyed staying in the office for all those long hours. It's like being in school, or in prison. Companies want their tech workers to remain in a perpetual state of adolescence, because that means they have fewer responsibilities outside of the workplace. 

I admit that I am struggling to find a positive note upon which to end this piece. I think it's a good thing that people outside of the industry are becoming are of the way many tech workplaces are run. I think that we are actually starting to see some change come about, finally. For all of the supposed metrics that tech companies administer to manage workers, current science shows that these practices are actually bad for productivity. Hopefully we in the tech business are not too cool and edgy to pay attention to actual science.
Posted on Wednesday, August 19, 2015 11:21 PM | Back to top

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